TV or not TV

I recently stumbled across the title of a book that I read, then lost track of: Bowling alone, by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The author, professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, was exploring the phenomenon of the decline in social capital since the 1950s. By “social capital” Putnam meant the participation of Americans in social institutions by standing for public office, and joining political parties or trade unions, religious groups, parent–teacher associations, veterans’ organisations, volunteers with Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, and service clubs such as Rotary. People are now less prepared to join these groups than was the case in the post-war decades. The level of trust they express in governments and social institutions generally has also declined.

I don’t doubt that this trend was a general one. In my childhood in Darwin, I remember my parents going to card nights, singalongs around the piano, and picnics with friends. OK, Darwin was a pretty small place then. The past is a foreign country, as L P Hartley observed. If you lived in Darwin in the 1960s and had a family, you mostly made your own fun. But when we moved to Sydney, my parents stopped participating in most of these forms of socialising. Of course they knew many fewer people there. Sydney offered substitutes, however, such as the Mensa organisation, which would probably not have been an option in Darwin. Joining this gave my father the opportunity to organise bridge and chess games at our place. There was also TV.

Why have overall levels of sociability and trust receded from their high in the decades immediately following WWII? Putnam attributes these phenomena primarily to the increasing prevalence of television and other electronic forms of entertainment. Other factors included the increasing participation of women in paid employment, and the effects of suburbanization, commuting, and urban sprawl. (I have cribbed these and other details from the Wikipedia article about Bowling Alone.) It all might sound rather dry, but Putnam, as I recall, is a graceful writer. As one might expect, his conclusions are all well buttressed with survey and other data, and his book has a substantial bibliography. It made quite an impression on me when I read it, so I was glad to be reminded of its title.

Independently of this, I had been thinking about television and the tremendous ways in which it has evolved. This was particularly clear to me, given that Darwin in the 1960s did not have TV. (The fun I had to make there included playing records and listening to Tarzan serials on our Kreisler radiogram.) I first saw TV in Brisbane during a family holiday to Queensland in the 1960s. I found it entrancing. As soon as we returned to our accommodation, I would switch the set on, regardless of what was being broadcast. The medium was truly the message.

TV then of course was black and white, and limited to a handful of channels. My beloved grew up in a regional area where there were two channels — the ABC and a commercial. She became an authority on the programming available at any given time of day or night. Before programs were shown, at 8.00 or 9.00 in the morning, the test pattern was broadcast. The evening’s viewing always concluded with the Union Jack rippling in the breeze, to the strains of God Save the Queen. (I’m sure some people would have stood up at home while this was playing. When writing this, I was curious about whether this had actually been a thing. All I could find was a story about how the Mission Barbecue chain in the US plays The Star-Spangled Banner at 12 noon, at which patrons may stand, doubtless with the encouragement of some of their fellows.)

A former housemate of mine referred to a female life partner as “she with whom one watches TV”. During the thousands of hours of TV I have watched with my beloved, we have gone from her flickering old black and white set, to a hulking Philips colour cathode ray TV that I lugged around to three domiciles, to our current Panasonic flat screen. We had the Philips CRTV for about 16 years. it had the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio; when digital channels came in, it required a set-top box to receive them. When we bought our place in Burwood in 2014, I refused to move this heavy old relic one more time, and bought the wide screen Panasonic from a Dick Smith store — back when these places still existed.

Our previous place, in Camberwell, had ushered us into the era of the second TV. The first of these was a tiny set, purchased in about 2013, which had a screen about the size of a microwave oven door. This tiddler went originally to the sunroom of our house in Camberwell, then to the study of our current place in Burwood. It gave up the ghost (no pun intended) just a few weeks ago. I replaced it with a much bigger Blaupunkt set, purchased in a Coles supermarket for $210. (Only a few TV manufacturers make their own screens, so a no-name TV will probably work as well as a recognised brand, and certainly last as long.)

When we bought our first VCR, this ushered in the era of time-shift programming, a.k.a taping off-air. The Green Guide insert in Thursday’s The Age lists the TV programs for the week. It became a ritual to go through the Green Guide and set up the following week’s programs to record. This could be a delicate operation: allowance had to be made for programs which started early and finished late. The commercial stations were the worst for running behind time, particularly when the programs had been preceded by a football match, charity broadcast, or other program likely to run over time. Much unhappiness was expressed when once (once!) I failed to sufficiently “pad” the end time of a recording of Cold Feet. Consequently the precious last few minutes of an episode were missing in action. (Of course this was the exception which proved the rule. On a very few of those occasions, too numerous to mention, when we had been able to watch the entirety of a program, I allowed myself to point this out. This did not prevent some good helpings of hot tongue and cold shoulder from coming my way after the initial offence.)

Other pinch points occurred with taping off-air. The early machines had a limited capacity to record, so when multiple programs earmarked for off-air recording overlapped each other, some bargaining had to be engaged in to pick a winner. The VCR could not record while a program was being played back. Thus when we were playing something back, and the VCR began setting itself up to record a second program, the playback had to be suspended until the recording of the latter had been completed. Our current hard drive recorder allows not only the recording of three programs at once, but also playing one of these back while it is still recording. Better still, it records closed captions. A program broadcast over several episodes, such as a series, can be set up to record in one go, and will stop recording when the series is completed.

Despite all these refinements, our current HDD recorder will probably be our last. I still engage in the weekly ritual of setting up programs to record. Each time yields fewer noteworthy offerings, however, to the point where it has become bit of a waste of time. The streaming services have such a wealth of content that I can’t remember when we watched something on a free-to-air channel. Like everything, this has its advantages as well as drawbacks. On our recent trip to Singapore, we found the TV set in our hotel room had none of the streaming services we watch at home. Fortunately, I had installed the apps for these services on my Samsung tablet. The TV in our room, also fortunately a Samsung, had a feature called screen mirroring. Using that I was able to first tune into Netflix on the tablet, then mirror the tablet screen on the TV — including captions. The broadcast could be paused and continued at will. None of this would have been possible before the advent of wifi, streaming television services, et al . (Perhaps my rigging up this Rube Goldberg arrangement restored a few brownie points, after having cut off Cold Feet, as it were, many years previously.)

Streaming brings a torrent of content to our living room. It can also split us into electronic tribes. When free to air TV was all there was, at least this provided a lot of people with a water-cooler topic. In the glory days of FTA, gangbuster series like The Ascent of Man, The Forsyte Saga, and Brideshead Revisited gripped millions of people, all at the same time. Everyone had a theory about who shot JR (except refuseniks like me who didn’t watch Dynasty). Apparently, whenever a commercial break occurred in these shows, water and electricity networks experienced peaks in demand, as their audience everywhere got up to have a pee and put the kettle on.

Ironically, now I think of it, the one time I overheard someone on the train talking about last night’s TV, they had been watching Frontline. Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing; Frontline was a TV show about a TV show. Can we get more postmodern than that? Of course — now we have Gogglebox. At least this program “surfaces” the all-pervasive aspect of TV by depicting people doing what they actually do, most of the time — watching the box. Now we can watch them doing it.

I’m not having a shot at TV — I watch as much as the next person. I am just fascinated by the way it simultaneously isolates us while (kinda-sorta) connecting us. Can we imagine life without it? There must be a show about that.

One thought on “TV or not TV

  1. Dear BroLoved your mini essay on the teevee and associated matters. More please!LoveThe Bro Sent from my Samsung Galaxy A70


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